David Nicholls, bestselling author and screenwriter of Mike Newell’s new version of Great Expectations, talks to Barnaby Walter about the process of adapting Dickens and the difficulties he faced when bringing his own book, One Day, to the big screen.
You have mentioned in the past that reading the book felt like the story was exclusively yours. Did you aim to for the film to have a similar effect on the viewer?
I hope so. I hope it’s a story that people identify with. I identified with it hugely, but I think you are always looking for yourself in books. That’s a main motive for reading, to work out who you are. Particularly with this book as it’s a supreme coming of age story. I think when you reread this book when you’re older you notice different things, a slightly different point of view. I found, reading it in preparation for the film, I was aware of different things. But I didn’t want to recreate that especially, but you want to create something that people identify with. I think that’s why the great classic novels take such a hold of people when they read them at the right age, whether it’s Jane Eyre or The Catcher in the Rye or Great Expectations. You see your potential adult self, but I think onscreen the emphasis might be slightly different. I really want to get over the idea that it’s a children’s book. I was struck when reading it how dark it is and violent, and it’s a much more complicated book than others such as Oliver Twist. That was more my intention.
Other adaptations have spent a lot of time on other characters, often Miss Havisham, but your version stays focused on the trajectory of Pip throughout the story. Why did you decide to make the focus very much on him?
I found his journey really compelling and fascinating. It is, as I’ve said, a great coming of age book, and it’s his character that changes the most. I think it’s true that the transformation Pip goes through is the most extreme. Whereas characters like Joe are fixed. I think, when I re-read the book, I was struck by how rich and complex the characters are. Miss Havasham isn’t this mean-spirited woman, she does change during the course of the book. She doesn’t soften but becomes more comprehensible. Dickens’s later novels are much more panoramic and don’t have a fixed view or fixed character who follow all the way through, but Great Expectations follows much more of a classic movie structure. There are struggles and a very clear aim which changes over the course of the movie, there are the three acts, and the sense of him having learnt a lesson in the end. None of this exists in Out Mutual Friend, or Little Dorrit, or Bleak House, fascinating though those novels are. I think it’s inevitable, when you take a book like great expectations and put it on the screen that you follow that structure.
Yes, I did. When I was asked to consider taking on the adaptation and re-read it I was struck by the brilliance of the plot and by the darkest parts of the book and the high emotion of it, and how it was incredibly moving. So I read it a couple of times and I listened to it a couple of times on long crazy walks all over the country, listening to various audiobook versions so the text really went in. In my response to it I noticed things in Dickens that perhaps aren’t always pushed to the fore, the darkness particularly, and the high emotion. Out of all the times I don’t think I’ve ever re-read it and not been moved by it.
Are there any film adaptations that you think have perfectly adapted the novel for the screen?
Not perfect, but I can think of some terrific ones. The best ones, in a way, are the ones where the director’s vision infuses with that of the author, like [Wes Anderson’s film] Fantastic Mr. Fox. By no means a particularly faithful adaptation, but it’s a really beguiling mix of East Coast sensibility and a sharp, spiky, English sensibility and I thought that worked brilliantly. In terms of achieving a kind of novelistic sensibility on the screen, one of my all time favourite films is Barry Lyndon (pictured above-right). I think it’s a masterpiece and Kubrick’s best film. It uses all types of techniques to make you feel you are lost in a great, rambling, nineteenth-century novel. I suppose the flip of that is François Truffaut Jules et Jim. Rather than trying to trick you into thinking you are in the work, it takes it and puts it in a blender with a New Wave audacity. The great joy of Jules et Jim is that it treats the past like the present.
You’ve adapted a number of works for the screen, both big and small. How different is the process when you are working for a feature film rather than a multi-episode adaptation such as your version of Tess of the D’Urbervilles for the BBC?
You really have to take in the sense of chapters. The real home for Dickens would seem like television, as he was writing episodically, and television tends to work episodically. For example, with Bleak House, you have 60 chapters and cliff-hangers and long and short story arcs, and all those techniques suit television. With Great Expectations it does have a sweeping feel of a film, and that’s why it’s a much more natural fit for cinema compared to Bleak House – a book I love but there are all kinds of reasons why it wouldn’t work on the big screen. One also has a strong feeling one should be faithful. Not slavish, but generally speaking to the book, and most of the dialogue in this film is from the book and the plot is more in tradition of the novel than previous adaptations. When I’m adapting something like Blake Morrison’s And When Did you Last See Your Father (pictured above-left), that source material is not as well known and it’s more poetically written. Working on Great Expectations, however, was more editorial. There is the other form of adaptation, which I used on Much Ado About Nothing [a modern-day version for the BBC], where you use wonderful classic material as a starting point or inspiration. There are all kinds of different approaches, I think.
There was, by coincidence, a rather lavish television series of Great Expectations on the BBC just months before the release of your adaptation. Did you watch it or did you stay clear?
I didn’t, no, we were just coming to the end of production on the film and I didn’t watch it. That type of thing is maddening. We all pretend to be very cool about it but it’s infuriating. What’s most maddening about it is that people think you watch the series on TV and think ‘Oh, that’s a good idea’ and go out a make a movie very quickly, when of course I wrote the first draft for my movie version about four years ago, and we’d just gone into production when we found out about the BBC one. So I didn’t watch it. I know the writer, Sarah Phelps, a terrific writer, and I knew she would be freer with the material than I would be. From where we were sitting it wasn’t ideal, but the source material is rich enough to take other interpretations. Another problem is that you’ll watch it and see things that are brilliant and you’ll resent it, then you’ll see parts that you perhaps don’t approve of and you’ll just scratch your head and feel smug. So neither a very helpful. I did watch about 45 minutes of the David Lean version and felt very quickly felt there was a different approach possible.
You have adapted your immensely successful novel One Day for the big screen. Is the process very different when it’s your novel you are adapting rather than someone else’s?
It is in the sense that it’s really hard, really tough to adapt your own work, and I don’t think I’d do it again. It’s really a bad idea. If you’ve been living with the source material for four or five years, then it becomes very hard to clear your head. It was incredibly stressful and difficult. You think you know all the dialogue, and I’ve written for the screen before, so how hard can it be? But it’s very hard. It’s not just the obvious reason, where you have to cut out the bits you love, though there is a bit of that, but the hardest thing is finding solutions to problems that are unique to screenwriting. You need an objectivity that I think it’s impossible for authors to have. When you write a book you’re not just the writer, you’re the director and the casting director , when of course you’re not, you are writing it on the page. And giving away that control with cinema can be fantastic and inspiring but also frustrating. So I don’t think I’ll do that much again.
When you read a book for pleasure, do you imagine it as a film in your head or consider how it would work onscreen, or do you just get lost in the story and not think about it?
I hope that I get lost in the story. I read a lot of books because people say ‘We think this might make a film, what do you think?’ and you hope that you do get lost in them, then retrospectively think about if it will make a great film. I’m trying not to do too much adaptation. I’ve done five films now, and they have always been adaptations. And the people I’ve adapted have been wonderful. I’ve enjoyed it but it becomes a bit of a luxury, and the next few things I’m trying to do are going to be original. But I do have a sense of that, when reading a book, but one hopes that a book will work on its own terms. But the books I’ve written have been clearly influenced by cinema, and I’ve given up feeling bad about that now. I like dialogue, I like a cinematic structure, and I can’t stop thinking in those terms.
There has been a lot of rumours about you working on Bridget Jones’s Baby, and apparently Hugh Grant wasn’t happen with the original script. Is it odd when people who aren’t involved in the writing come in and make suggestions?
It’s actually really easy to answer this actually – I’m not doing it! The script that Hugh Grant didn’t like isn’t mine; it’s very odd all this. A couple of summers ago, the director Paul ?? was working on it and Helen Fielding and Paul asked me if I’d like to come and do two weeks of storyboarding on the script and that’s what I did. So I was on it for exactly two weeks, so it’s extraordinary the way this rumour has grown!
You are listed on IMDb as a writer!
I know! I did make some contributions to the script, but it’s just not the case. It was literally only two weeks of editing and I really enjoyed it. I did some work on the story, did my time and I left. It’s a bizarre rumour, but there you go!
Great Expectations (2012) is available now on Blu-ray disc and DVD now, distributed by Lionsgate, Certificate PG.